New Study Confirms That the Future of Data Storage Is in DNA

Posted March 06, 2017

In a new study in Science, a pair of researchers at Columbia University and the New York Genome Center (NYGC) show that an algorithm designed for streaming video on a cellphone can unlock DNA's almost full storage potential by squeezing more information into its four base nucleotides.

The new technique uses a "DNA fountain" algorithm which haphazardly packs binary code into data droplets that can be mapped onto DNA building blocks. According to Columbia University computer scientist Yaniv Erlich, they were able to encode at 1.6 bits per nucleotide, which works out to 85 percent of the theoretical maximum limit for DNA storage.

Aside from being microscopically small, putting data in DNA will allow us to safely store information for hundreds of thousands of years into the future.

On a single gram of DNA, the revolutionary tech provides the ability to store an impressive 215 petabytes (215 million gigabytes) of data.

So what did the duo decide to use to test their method?

Erlich and his colleague Dina Zielinski, an associate scientist at NYGC, chose six files to encode, or write, into DNA: a full computer operating system, an 1895 French film, "Arrival of a train at La Ciotat", a $50 Amazon gift card, a computer virus, a Pioneer plaque and a 1948 study by information theorist Claude Shannon. The text file was sent to a startup from San Francisco called Twist Bioscience which turned all that digital data into biological data by synthesizing DNA.

After careful consideration, the scientists chose the files that would be stored on the DNA strands.

Ultra-modern sequencing technology was used to recover the files.

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DNA as a storage medium makes sense-after all, it already stores the billions of letters that code for life. They were also able to retrieve the information error-free. "For obvious reasons, we removed the Amazon gift card".

DNA has several big advantages.

Well, according to the paper submitting by the research team, with this revolutionary method we can pretty soon wave bye-bye to conventional storage methods such as hard-disk, blue-rays or memory disks. Ever increasing capacity of USBs has been the norm for the last few years and the thirst for more storage capacity is yet to be quenched.

Using their coding strategy, the researchers said, it would be possible to store 215 petabytes of data on a single gram of DNA.

To read the files, the scientists used DNA sequencing technology, followed by software that translated the DNA sequences into binary data.

In addition, the researchers showed they could easily copy DNA-encoded files using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique now commonplace in genetics labs.

Previous research achieved 1.0 bit storage capacity per DNA nucleotide base, while the Columbia team reached 1.6 bits.

Erlich: I would guess more than a decade. Apparently the synthesis of 2 megabytes of data into DNA cost $7,000, and a further cost of $2,000 was involved in reading the data back.